I don’t think I’ve ever written something so practical and unsexy about a relationship, but I’m here to say that I am forever grateful to my ex who taught me what a Roth IRA is, convinced me to open one, and encouraged me to start putting away money toward my retirement fund ASAP. We did not last as a romantic connection, but her straightforward life advice helped me in both a materially beneficial way and also in a “okay I can pinpoint this moment as one where I’m growing up and learning a thing” kind of way.
When I was 25, I started dating a babe who was about eight years older than me. She had her shit together in a lot of ways that I did not. When we met, I was living on a lesbian commune in a tent (lol) and she was the tech director at a big company based out of California. I was going through a romantic breakup, multiple friend breakups, and a general crisis of confidence in queer community, and she had grown up in Portland, lived her entire life there, had strong ties to community and an equally strong acceptance of the conflict that can arise amongst people who love each other. I was questioning if polyamory was right for me and she’d been wrestling with that question for more than a decade. And, most relevantly for this particular essay, I was very into spending money I had in the moment and not worrying about the future whereas she had been saving for retirement for years.
Or I should say, I was not thinking about my finances for the future until one specific conversation I had with my ex and her best friend. They were both the same age, and they both had impressive full-time jobs. Meanwhile, I was nannying part time and trying to figure out how to freelance successfully. My dad had always encouraged me to open a retirement savings account, but I’d rolled my eyes. Getting older felt far away. I was literally paid in cash every week by my nanny families. My rent was cheap, and I felt like I had More Than Enough.
The three of us, my ex, her best friend, and me, decided to take a road trip in late August, and found ourselves next to a fucking gorgeous lake in Glacier National Park one afternoon when the two of them started comparing their contributions to their Roth IRAs. I had nothing to contribute to the conversation; I was clueless.
A Roth IRA is an Individual Retirement Account to which you contribute after-tax dollars. While there are no current-year tax benefits, your contributions and earnings can grow tax-free, and you can withdraw them tax-free and penalty free after age 59½ and once the account has been open for five years. (Yes I did take that directly from the Charles Schwab website.) I feel embarrassed to share this now, but I was genuinely so shocked to learn they each had accounts like this. I remember thinking — I thought we didn’t believe in big banking! I thought we wanted to say fuck you to The Man! I always thought of my ex as more radical than I was — why was she investing her money in a Roth IRA?
Bless my ex, and her bestie, because they both patiently explained why actually, there’s nothing punk rock about not taking care of your future self if you have the means to. They’d both grown up with significantly less financial privilege than I had, and I think they were both a little unimpressed with my ignorance. And that’s fair. When you’ve never worried about having enough money growing up, it might not occur to you to save for the future, and it’s a huge privilege to have that mindset. They helped me realize that and unpack it, and they also helped me with the practical next step: I opened up my own Roth IRA and started making tiny contributions.
You can contribute $6000 total to a Roth IRA over the course of a tax year, which breaks down to $500/month if you want to max it out. I couldn’t imagine ever having that much extra income to invest when they taught me about this specific retirement savings account, and frankly, almost ten years later, I still can’t. I just don’t make enough money for that to be realistic. But they encouraged me to put away whatever I could, and I started out with $50/month and a few years later bumped it up to $100/month. That’s where I’m still at, though I do try to put extra money in at the end of every tax year. Every little bit counts, and like my ex taught me, saving to take care of my future self is both an act of self love and community care. The more okay I am in the future, the more I’ll be able to use my resources to help others. I do feel dumb that it took me 25 years on this planet to learn that, but we don’t know what we don’t know. Thanks to my ex, I learned.